On July 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy made a televised address in response to Soviet Union Premier Nikita Khrushchev's threat to end allied presence in West Berlin. In this speech, President Kennedy states:
We do not intend to abandon our duty to mankind to seek a peaceful solution. As signers of the UN charter, we shall always be prepared to discuss international problems with any and all nations that are willing to talk--and listen--with reason. If they have proposals--not demands--we shall hear them. If they seek genuine understanding--not concessions of our rights--we shall meet with them. We have previously indicated our readiness to remove any actual irritants in West Berlin, but the freedom of that city is not negotiable. We cannot negotiate with those who say 'What's mine is mine, and what's yours is negotiable.'
So, what do President Kennedy's remarks have to do with intimacy work?
On several occasions, I have met with students who are confused and frustrated over the inevitability of not being cast in a production. But I also have had students in my office who show me an audition call, script, or scene and ask me, "I just don't know if I can do this." Some have already accepted the role and are in the depths of rehearsal, and others are at the beginning of the process not knowing how to proceed. These discussions most often happen with moments of intense emotion or vulnerability. Specifically, these discussions have often happened with instances of intimacy, nudity, or sexual violence. Recently, Got Your Back Canada published their findings from their 2018 survey on the state of acting training in Canada. They found "More than three quarters of students reported being required to take part in scenes requiring kissing or physical intimacy, but less than one quarter of students felt they were able to opt out of these scenes."
I have seen students try to "tough it out." Some are able to do so and come out unscathed. Others have returned to therapy during and after the rehearsal process to cope. Some have experiences so horrific that they quit the entertainment industry altogether. Very few take the advice I offer when they come to me with their dilemma: walk away.
Why do theatre artists resist walking away?
For one, the entertainment industry is reliant on contingent labor. Professional actors, artisans, stage managers, and technicians jump from job to job to cobble together a livable income. Walking away from a production would often mean immediate financial insecurity with no guarantee of a saving grace source of income.
Theatre artists also have a fear of burning bridges. In most scenarios, this makes sense in terms of creating repeat sources of income; if I show a theatre company that I am a good employee and am "easy to work with," I will be able to develop connections and create more income in the future through these connections. This is also true in theatre departments. I have heard on more than one occasion that "I don't want to make so-and-so mad because I want them to cast me in the future." These sentiments were echoed in the Got Your Back Canada survey in regards to nudity:
As with intimate scenes, many did not feel able to opt out. Anecdotes that accompanied these questions in the survey mentioned that, while opting out was offered, students were made to feel 'looked down on' or that it was 'a socially uncomfortable thing to do' if they chose to.
In addition, a professional pedagogy has been cemented in the entertainment that is best summed up by Abby Lee Miller of Dance Moms fame: "Everyone is replaceable." If I don't do it, they will find someone who will and I'll be out of a job. (Notice how many of these decisions are tied to finances?)
But what do you do when you are being asked to do something that is completely outside of your comfort zone and there seems to be no clear way forward?
Proposals, Not Demands
The sign of a good industry artist is to make proposals, not demands. If a collaborator is asking your thoughts on a moment of intimacy, nudity, or sexual violence, it is crucial that you are honest with that person of what you are and are not willing to do. Each moment of intimacy is a negotiation and should be treated as such. If a collaborator is not willing to negotiate, feel free to ask questions about what the collaborator is looking for in the moment of intimacy. This provides an opportunity for genuine understanding, not a concession of your rights. You have agency over your own body and are under no obligation to do things just because a person in power says so.
If you are in a position where your collaborator seems unwilling to listen to your concerns, honor your boundaries, or threaten your position within the production if you do not comply with their "request," it is not a request. You cannot negotiate with those who say "What's mine is mine, and what's yours is negotiable."
If you are reading this and are in a similar situation looking for a sign or answers of what to do, here it is: walk away.
For many, walking away seems like a nuclear option. There is no way one can bounce back from leaving a bad situation, right? People will think I am the problem or that there is something wrong with me. In reality, there are several instances where people walked away and continued to have careers. In the moment, it may seem like the end, but I promise you, it is not the end. There will be other shows. There will be other opportunities. There will be places that welcome you, validate you, and accept your boundaries exactly the way they are. No role, position, company, or affiliation is worth suffering through for the sake of a paycheck.
Your well-being is the most important. And that is non-negotiable.